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Bronson and Merryman write,

One fallacy about teams is that, to be successful, everyone must be friends. 

The research says it’s the other way around: team performance drives the quality of relationships. 

When teams are failing, this poor performance upsets their members – and they take their frustration out on one another. 

When a team is doing well, the team isn’t bothered by friction within the group. Teammates will even say that their success was due to the cooperative style of the team…even when independent observers report that the team was quarreling most of the time…

Constant harmony may even be cause for alarm. A conflit-free team means no one is bringing anything to the table that might engender controversy. The team members aren’t focused on the team’s purpose; instead, they are focused on protecting the group’s relationships. It’s one of the ways teams can be less than the sum of their parts: fear of offending anybody. 

I suppose you could learn this either through scientific research or simply by reading a few biographies of great athletes. As long as they are honest, the great athletes – or at least the ones that played on great teams – will tell you that there was usually plenty of friction on the team. But it was a healthy kind of friction, the kind of friction or controversy that flows from a group of individuals uniting together in pursuit of a common goal. In my experience, a team with no struggle is a team that rarely has what it takes to reach their full potential. So conflicts should not be viewed as negative, but more so, as opportunities for growth.

The emphasis on friends reminds me of a quote from C.S. Lewis, one that I often think of when I have heard coaches say that they would like everyone to be closer on the team or to be ‘friends.’ Though they have often meant well, they usually failed to realize that the best way to make everyone closer was to clarify team vision and individual roles. In short, to make us good. Friendship cannot be made a means to another end. To try to do so is to undermine the foundations for true friendship itself. Here’s Lewis,

People who simply ‘want friends’ can never make any. The very condition of having friends is that we should want something else besides friends. Where the truthful answer to the question Do you see the same truth? would be “I see nothing and I don’t care about the truth; I only want a friend,” no friendship can arise – though affection of course may. There would be nothing for the friendship to be about; and friendship must be about something, even if it were only an enthusiasm for dominoes or white mice…

Those who have nothing can share nothing; those who are going nowhere can have no fellow-travellers. (p. 66-67 of The Four Loves)

Many lessons can be learned from this truth, but suffice it to say that coaches and players are wise to focus their energies on the things that really count. Relationship building may have its place, but more often than not, it should take a far backseat to team building. For if you build a good team, relationships will usually come. They will probably come with some struggle, no doubt, but if we are viewing things rightly, the struggle is essential. Without it, you can have neither good relationships or a good team.

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On the importance of roles, Bronson and Merryman write,

Clarifying who is going to do what – identifying distinct roles – is one of the most proven ways to increase the quality of teamwork. The egalitarian notion that team members should be equal in status and interchangeable in their roles is erroneous. Teams work best when participants know their roles, but not every role needs to be equal. 

Dr. Eduardo Salas, at the University of Central Florida, is one of the most widely cited scholars studying team efficiency. He has devoted his life to understanding the vast sea of team-building and team-training processes – analyzing teams used in the military, law enforcement, NASA, and numerous corporate settings. The only strategies that consistently deliver results are those that focus on role clarification: who’s going to do what when the pressure gets intense. 

I believe the vast majority of leaders and coaches out there would totally agree with this statement. However, in my experience, leaders often are not as clear about roles as they ought to be, because they rarely engage in the necessary grunt work to be as clear as possible. And when it comes to defining roles, clarity is essential.

If I were to note the most important aspects of clarifying team roles in a basketball setting, I would say,

1) Be clear about your overall vision (because only then can we start to understand where we fit).

2) Clarify our roles on the basis of what we do best. Please don’t begin with who you want us to be, but who we already are and, to a certain degree, what we already like to do or what we think we do best. Please take the time to figure us out in that way. And if you don’t know where to start, start by asking us. Listen to understand and you will have a much easier time being understood.

Then, as you do this work, be as specific and clear as possible.

3) Remind us and encourage us in the fulfillment of our roles. Your players or employees will forget. They will easily lose sight of their roles. Some may want a bigger role. Others may not think they are up to the task. Everyone needs encouragement. And everyone needs reminders of how they fit into the big picture.

This is by no means easy. But it is well worth the labor if you are able to do it well.


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I need to get this book back to the library in a few days, so I will put a few more thoughts together regarding the hierarchy of teams.

At one point, Bronson and Merryman write,

Having studied teams in many settings, from airplane cockpits to symphony orchestrate, [Profession J. Richard] Hackman believes that 60% of a team’s fate has been written before the team members even meet. Its destiny is decided by a combination of the team leader’s efficacy, whether the team’s goal is challenging yet attainable, and the ability level of the people recruited to the team. 

Thirty percent of a team’s fate is sealed with the initial launch of the team – how the teammates meet and, in those initial exchanges, how they split up the responsibilities and tasks before them. They need to agree on common codes of conduct and shared expectations.

All told, 90% of a team’s fate has been decided before the team ever begins its real work.

Hackman likens a team to a rocket. Most of the work has to happen beforehand – in the initial design, the structure, and the building of the team. Because once it launches, it takes on a set trajectory, and it is incredibly difficult to change course mid-flight.

It may sound like an overstatement, but in my experience, this is almost right on, at least in the realm of basketball teams. Contrary to what you may think, however, this should not lead to a sort of determinism. It is just to say that there are more things in place during the initial phase of forming a team than we might initially imagine. In consideration of this, I think it is helpful to point out a few things. I will talk about them in relationship to basketball, but they should be applicable to many spheres.

First, the ability of the team’s primary leaders usually does come first. It begins with the head coach, but also extends to the assistant coaches and, usually, the best players. Not only that, but it is helpful to point out that a team’s potential is often contained in the ability of a head coach to coach this particular team. The best coaches can adjust their approach to coach anyone well, but most coaches out there seem to me to be best at coaching a certain type of team.

Second, every team needs a clear goal that, as the authors point out, “is challenging, yet attainable.” So as a leader, you are wise to clarify those goals up front.

Third, recruiting is important. But not simply the kind of recruiting that gathers the best raw talent. Wise recruiting should consider not just how talented a particular player may be, but also what kind of role he will happily perform for a team. After all, only a few guys can be the stars.

Fourth, do your work up front. Labor to get things right and clear at the beginning of the season, because it is very difficult to turn things around without completely starting over. I have seen this time and again during my professional career. How you start really does matter a lot.

Fifth, if you do start poorly or find yourself with changes on the team during the season, consider hitting the ‘reset’ button. Define new goals. Clarify a new vision. Start over without completely starting over. It’s not easy, but it can be done. And yet, in my experience (and as Bronson and Merryman point towards later in the chapter), it can’t be done if you refuse to hit the ‘reset’ to some degree. The ‘fate’ of your team may not have been good to begin with, but that never means that all is lost. It just may mean that you need to start over. Face the fact that you have a new team. Or at least a team that needs new goals.

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